An interview with Dr. Holly Oxhandler on how self-care can help us live resiliently.
By Jamie Aten, Ph.D.
Amidst the busyness of life, it can be hard to take time for yourself, let alone get the care you need. In this interview, Holly Oxhandler provides insight on the importance of self-care and the best ways to cultivate it for yourself and others during any season.
Holly Oxhandler, Ph.D., LMSW is the Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development and an Associate Professor at Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. Dr. Oxhandler has studied the intersection of faith and mental health over the last decade and is particularly interested in the degree to which mental health care providers discuss and integrate clients’ religion/spirituality in mental health treatment. She’s also the co-host of CXMH, a weekly podcast on the intersection of faith and mental health, and is currently writing her first book to translate her research on this intersection for everyday helpers.
Jamie Aten: How would you personally define self-care?
Holly Oxhandler: Self-care is a phrase often used with very different meanings. Some consider self-care as a trip to the spa or a Saturday TV series marathon, but I think self-care is a much more intentional practice that requires a deeper level of discernment of what we really need to care for our whole selves well.
In social work, we talk about holistically caring for our clients, including their biological, psychological, social, and spiritual makeup. In the same way, I consider self-care as holistically caring for ourselves, including our physical health, mental health, social supports, and spiritual health. The phrase “we cannot draw water from an empty well” is crucial in this understanding of self-care, recognizing that if we are not taking care of ourselves, it’s extremely difficult (if not impossible) to care for others well. Even worse, if we’re not caring for ourselves well, what impact does that have on our engagement with others?
Therefore, I define self-care as an intentional, preventative, continual effort of recognizing that in order to care for others well, we must reflect upon, identify, and tend to our own bio-psycho-social-spiritual needs and that we are worth caring for ourselves.
JA: What are some ways self-care can help us live more resiliently?
HO: It’s important to see self-care as a practice, similar to practicing an instrument or sport. For those who don’t typically practice self-care, especially among those who identify as caregivers and helpers, it can take time to become comfortable with and regularly practice these strategies that tend to our physical health, mental health, social support, and spiritual health.
Self-care strategies aren’t one-size-fits-all across individuals or situations. Instead, we must draw on a mixture of short-term and long-term self-care strategies that uniquely support each of us. The short-term strategies can help when we’re suddenly under high levels of stress and may include deep breathing exercises, a grounding practice (e.g., asking yourself what you see, hear, taste, feel, and smell), drinking cold water, or taking a few minutes to meditate.
On the other hand, long-term strategies help promote resilience when they are regularly practiced and can include healthy sleep habits, a daily centering prayer practice, weekly social gatherings (even virtually!), remaining mindful of the food/drinks we consume and how they make us feel, or scheduling regular mental health therapy appointments.
By having a self-care toolbox filled with diverse strategies that tend to our whole being for various scenarios, we are much better positioned to live with a grounded and embodied resilience for when stressors and crises arise.
JA: What are some ways caregivers can cultivate self-care during COVID-19?
HO: Caregivers are at the forefront of navigating so much these days, giving without the typical margin to rest from their responsibilities or stressors that they may have had prior to COVID-19. Plus, caregivers account for so many of us, including parents, teachers, mental health care providers, faith leaders, doctors, nurses, partners, loved ones, and more. Most of us are somehow engaged in caring for others, especially these days.
In this season of uncertainty that we’re all navigating, just like scheduling a piano lesson or yoga practice, the most important thing is to create and carry out a self-care plan that tends to each of the four areas of our lives that I mentioned above. This self-care plan might include getting eight hours of sleep per night, limiting alcohol and/or caffeine consumption, engaging in spiritual practices, cultivating a daily gratitude practice, being creative with music or art, or scheduling regular appointments with a licensed mental health care provider.
Regardless of the activities, Parker Palmer reminds us that, “Self-care is never a selfish act—it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give the care it requires, we do it not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch.”
For those who are interested in creating a self-care plan, especially caregivers and fellow helpers, I offer a free, one-week Self-Care for Helpers guide to support others in creating their self-care plan.
JA: Any advice for how we might use these strategies to encourage a friend or loved one struggling with a difficult life situation?
HO: I think we first need to take ownership of our own self-care plan and practice these strategies to care for ourselves before encouraging others to practice it. We must model the behaviors we would hope others would adopt, remembering we cannot give to others that which we don’t offer ourselves.
That said, we are seeing higher levels of mental health struggles this year as compared to previous years. It’s likely that we all have loved ones who are struggling, whether it’s due to a specific life situation, physical or mental illness, overwhelming uncertainty, or the growing amount of ambiguous losses we’re facing.
To the best of our ability, we must be with and feel the rising emotions tied to these difficult situations (rather than numb, bypass, or avoid the emotions) in order to discern what our next step(s) should be, including which self-care strategies we rely on or perhaps suggest to others. By being with the emotions, caring for our own holistic needs, navigating this season one day at a time, trusting we are doing the best we can with what we have (in light of our abilities, resources, and responsibilities), and reaching out for help when needed, we give others permission to do the same.
JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?
HO: The project I’m most excited about these days is a book I’m writing to translate the last decade of research I’ve done on the intersection of spirituality and mental health for everyday helpers. I’m deeply grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to engage in this research and want it to be accessible to those who I’m seeking to serve: helpers. Those who are interested in learning more about the book or my research can sign up for my monthly newsletter on my website. Further, I’d also invite readers to tune into the weekly podcast I cohost, CXMH, which focuses on conversations on the intersection of faith and mental health.
Jamie Ate, Ph.D. is founder and co- director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and Blanchard Professor of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit jamieaten.com. He is also co-founder of National COVID-19 Day.